Ben Penigar, of Grey Area Productions, says when his company took over the mid-sized Rex Theater on the South Side five years ago, there were costs involved in making the venue more accessible. Part of that stemmed from a change in zoning, he explains; the Rex had been zoned as a sit-down movie theater, and Grey Area changed it to an open-floor venue. During renovations, they added ramps and built out a restroom to be accessible.
"That was one of the surprises" that came up when the company took over the theater, he admits. "We were already at the venue when we found out about everything we had to do." But, he says, the cost was worth it for a number of reasons. The accessible restroom also serves as a family restroom, and Penigar says patrons with mobility issues or other disabilities get in touch on a weekly basis to make accessibility arrangements.
Beyond the big structural changes, McMorland says, there are small, easy adjustments that venues and organizations of all kinds can make in order to be more accessible. One simple step that goes a long way is simply communicating clearly.
"Something that never would have occurred to me until I started having a disability is that it's really helpful to post, everywhere possible — on your website, on your flier if there's room, on your ticketing page — post, ‘We want to make this accessible. Please let us know how we can do that.' And give a phone number. If you think about all of the different things someone has to spend their time contacting in a day to make sure they can participate — the grocery store, to the bus stop, to the library ... it's not just your venue; it's their entire day."
Some larger arts groups and venues, like the Pittsburgh Symphony, have an accessibility information page, easily found via their website's home page. Most local music venues don't, or if they do have information available, it's not immediately apparent from the venue's main page
Mulgrave's advice on accessibility information for music venues is the same she gives to other groups. "The best thing to do is to come out and say, ‘This is exactly what to expect when you're here.' Because people get angry when they show up to a place with certain expectations and they're not met. They just need the information to make a decision. The advice a lot of people have gotten in the past, if they're not 100 percent accessible, is ‘Don't admit it.' What I say is ... the best way to build goodwill is to describe exactly what your accessibility is."
And another aspect of live-music events that can affect the quality of the experience for patrons with disabilities is one that's common to any public place: The concert-goers themselves. Most venues with accessible seating only have it in one spot, notes Josie Badger, an ethicist and accessibility advocate who uses a motorized wheelchair. "In venues that have lawn seating, say, it's usually in the back — where the drunk people all end up. And you always end up being a support for someone."
"And you always end up behind the people who want to stand," she adds. "Some people try to sit so they don't block your view, but then everyone else is standing, so they can't see, and they end up standing back up."
Ultimately, says McMorland, arts groups have been making great strides in accessible programming. But there's still plenty of room for improvement, and smaller venues are one place where that's clear.
"The goal isn't [just] to have opportunities that are accessible," he says. "The goal is to make everything accessible. That means Gooski's and Brillobox and Cattivo — bars where people actually go to see bands, or maybe start a band, to play for their friends and strangers — not just being a passive consumer in this one stream of programming that's available to you. Which is good and well-meaning, but it's beyond that: You have to give people all the options everyone else has, and make it so they can create their own music if they want to."